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Dolores Flores v. Michael J. Astrue

January 11, 2013

DOLORES FLORES,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Margaret A. Nagle United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff filed a Complaint on December 29, 2011, seeking review of the denial by the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") of plaintiff's application for supplemental security income benefits ("SSI"). On February 15, 2012, the parties consented to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on September 11, 2012, in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and awarding benefits or, in the first alternative, finding plaintiff disabled as of her fifty-fifth birthday and ordering the payment of benefits, or, in the second alternative, remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings; and defendant seeks an order affirming the Commissioner's decision or, in the alternative, remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings. The Court has taken the parties' Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

On March 31, 2009, plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging an inability to work since August 31, 2001 (Administrative Record ("A.R." 19), due to neck pain, back pain, knee and ankle injury, and anxiety (A.R. 22, 64, 69). Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a mail clerk. (A.R. 24.)

After the Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim initially and upon reconsideration (A.R. 19, 64-67, 69-73), plaintiff requested a hearing (A.R. 19, 48-54). On February 7, 2011, plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Robert A. Evans (the "ALJ"). (A.R. 19, 30-47.) On March 3, 2011, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim (A.R. 19-25), and the Appeals Council subsequently denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (A.R. 1-5). That decision is now at issue in this action.

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

In his decision, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 31, 2009, the application date. (A.R. 21.) The ALJ further found that plaintiff has the severe impairments of "status post lumbar fusion[,] degenerative disc disease in the cervical and lumbar spines[,] and anxiety." (A.R. 21.) The ALJ concluded that such impairments, however, do not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.)

The ALJ determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light, unskilled work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). (A.R. 21.) The ALJ found that plaintiff's past relevant work as a mail clerk does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by plaintiff's RFC. (A.R. 24.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since March 31, 2009. (Id.)

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is "'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id. (citation omitted). The "evidence must be more than a mere scintilla but not necessarily a preponderance." Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003). While inferences from the record can constitute substantial evidence, only those "'reasonably drawn from the record'" will suffice. Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006)(citation omitted).

Although this Court cannot substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner, the Court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988); see also Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995).

The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). However, the Court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision "and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Orn, 495 F.3d at 630; see also Connett, 340 F.3d at 874. The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists only when it is "clear from the record that an ALJ's error was 'inconsequential to the ultimate non-disability determination.'" Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 885 (9th Cir. 2006)(quoting Stout v. Comm'r, 454 F.3d 1050, 1055-56 (9th Cir. 2006)); see also Burch, 400 F.3d at 679.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ: (1) did not properly determine whether plaintiff meets or equals Listing 12.05(c); and (2) failed to properly consider the opinions of plaintiff's physicians and, thus, did not properly assess her RFC or her ability to perform her ...


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